A Better Way to Feed the Hungry

Bill Gates thinks he's got a brilliant idea: fighting malnutrition abroad by fortifying food.

The scheme, backed with $50 million from the Gates Foundation, in part encourages Proctor & Gamble, Philip Morris' Kraft, and other companies to develop vitamin and iron-fortified processed foods. It then facilitates their entry into Third World markets.

Gates seems to believe we don't have time to address the complex social and political roots of malnutrition. But in opting for this single-focus, top-down, technical intervention, Gates can end up hurting the very people he wants to help.

His strategy ignores a crucial reality: Many, if not most, of the hungriest people in the world are themselves farmers. They eke out a living by selling what they grow, and eating it. Helping foreign food purveyors penetrate their markets will only further rob them of livelihood. For example, India's dairy cooperatives -- many run by poor women -- would be hard-pressed to withstand the onslaught of Kraft's marketing power.

The Gates approach also hurts the poor if it shifts tastes toward processed foods -- typically adding fat, sugar, and salt while removing needed fiber and micronutrients. This diet trend already contributes to the spread of diseases currently burdening the industrial world. Obesity and diet-related diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are becoming a global crisis. In the Third World, grossly insufficient health care budgets are now being diverted to treat these conditions, and away from treating deadly infectious diseases.

Aiding market penetration by global food processing companies also ends up making consumers dependent on foreign suppliers for life's essentials. But while corporations such as Kraft or Proctor & Gamble might well participate in Gates' do-good scheme, ultimately their interests diverge from those of the hungry. By law, theirs is assuring the highest return to their shareholders -- foreigners -- not the improved well-being of local people, and certainly not hungry local people too poor to make their needs felt in the market.

Even the piece of the Gates scheme focused on fortifying grain (presumably locally grown) misses critical lessons learned since the first World Food Conference in Rome declared war on global hunger almost three decades ago.

Then, many still believed that hunger could be solved by simple, mass-production approaches. After decades of failed, technologically-driven solutions, a new wisdom is emerging.

We recently traveled on five continents, witnessing a heartening array of local initiatives addressing the complex, interwoven roots of needless malnutrition. These are not pie-in-the-sky solutions; they are working.

In 1993 Brazil's fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, declared food a right of citizenship. This single shift of frame -- beyond charitable hand-outs, beyond market tyranny -- unleashed dozens of innovations: Making city plots available for local, organic farmers as long as they keep prices within the reach of the poor; posting where to find the cheapest prices for over 40 food staples; enhancing nutrition in school lunches by replacing processed foods with local organic food. The city also tries to innoculate newly arrived dwellers against global corporate food advertising (probably including that of the very companies in the Gates fold) by educating them to the value of sticking with the healthy whole foods diets they grew up on in the countryside.

Across the globe in Kenya, women of the Green Belt Movement, an anti-desertification campaign that has planted 20 million trees, are now reclaiming diverse, traditional food crops. They are creating organic kitchen gardens growing precisely the fruits and vegetables that provide the nutrients Gates' fortification scheme seeks to supply.

A promising international "fair trade" movement now also addresses the powerlessness that leaves people malnourished in the first place. Third World producers can market fair trade products, such as coffee certified by Oakland-based Transfair USA, helping to ensure the livelihood of some of the world's poorest people.

Tens of thousands of such innovative efforts, many citizen driven, continue to emerge on every continent. They are succeeding because they address the real causes of malnutrition -- concentrated economic and political power that blocks people from pursuing their interests and from building vibrant, sustainable local economies, accountable to local needs.

Just imagine what might happen if Bill Gates chose not to fortify corporate foods but to use his $50 million to fortify efforts like these, encouraging their cross-fertilization and replication. With nutrient deficiencies stunting the lives of at least two billion people we can't afford ill-considered strategies that will hurt rather than help.

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